This book put me through the wringer.
I was drawn to the title, Three Women, and the author’s last name, Taddeo, since I had worked with a student with that last name years ago. I had heard nothing about this bestseller, but there it was, on a new arrival display at Barnes & Noble. Soon this nonfiction work about female desire arrived at our library, so I eagerly checked it out.
Riveted, I flipped through the pages, periodically reminding myself that these were true accounts. Soon it became apparent that in order to get through this book, I was going to have to pack up my prude and suspend my judgment. I was going to have to restrain my feminist bent, shut my yapping mouth, and allow Taddeo to tell these women’s stories as they relayed them to her.
Here’s part of a story relayed by Lina, describing a time she was sexually assaulted at a party:
“I wasn’t really aware of how it was happening down there. I just felt someone on top of me and I knew it was sex. Next thing I remember is him rolling me over, so I’m on my stomach. Then there’s another guy on me and I hear him say, Oh no this is Abby’s little sister, I can’t do this. And he quit. Then there was a third guy, but my memory is awful by that point. I wasn’t fighting, that much I remember. I was just chill about it. I think I thought that I didn’t want to say no to anyone, that I wanted them to like me. I just didn’t want to give them any reason not to. Like me.
“The next day and all the days that follow the rumor is that Lina fucked three guys in one night”(34).
In the thick of the stories, I tossed and turned at night, running them over in my head. Call it what it is, I muttered, rape, abuse, self-loathing! I was outraged, questioning Taddeo’s motive. Is this a sick way to score a bestseller, I fumed, exploit the sex lives of three scarred and desperate women? I felt anger at Taddeo for not more explicitly pointing out that these women were wronged and are victims of a twisted society.
But did she have to? Isn’t this evident to readers anyhow? None of these women hid any of their dark experiences, their treatment and their pain. I imagined Taddeo, a journalist, knew that providing the facts and the women’s interpretation of the events of their own lives, would suffice. Right?
I was also keenly aware that my reaction to this book was saying a lot about me. It forced me to reckon with my own issues and experiences around desire and sex, and how I regard others, especially women. My compulsion to label, to judge, to want to call it out, explain it away. I was struggling to do what Taddeo in her prologue had urged readers to do: “comprehend before they condemn”(9).
Three quarters of the way through I decided this book and its author didn’t belong on our NWW site. That Lisa Taddeo was not a Nasty Woman Writer, not a feminist.
But I couldn’t let it go; this assessment didn’t feel right or even mine to make. I devoured review after review of the book and hit on several that helped me catch my breath and swim to a familiar island in this sea of desperate desire, an intellectual safety net. For good or bad, I needed that.
A review in the Washington Post by Elizabeth Flock, “a journalist who covers gender and justice” (amen), calls the book, “an extraordinary study of female desire” and from which we learn (or relearn) “how dramatically a single event can wreck a woman’s life: a rape, a rumor, an invitation. We watch how the domino effect of family trauma can contort a girl, so that as a woman she never gets what she needs.”
Flock goes on, “If there is anything wrong with this arresting, provocative debut, it is that at times the stories feel too explicit, almost voyeuristic. But can a book about desire ever be too explicit?” Apparently not.
Another insightful review by journalist and writer, Toni Bentley appeared in the New York Times. She says, “The result of Taddeo’s investigation, however, is not a book about the vast terra infirma of female desire, but, rather, an excruciating expose of the ongoing epidemic of female fragility and neediness in the romantic arena – a product of our insecurity, ignorance and zero self-regard.”
I finally reached Taddeo’s epilogue and discovered I would have changed my mind anyhow, without the reviews to convince me.
In the epilogue, Taddeo reflects on her mother’s life: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face”(302).
This lengthy, extensive project yielded insights Taddeo shares, such as,
“It felt as though, with desire, nobody wanted anyone else, particularly a woman, to feel it. Marriage was okay. Marriage was its own prison, its own mortgage. Here is a place for you to lay your head and here is a food bowl for the dog. If you fuck around, if you try to build a steam bath, may everything you fear come to pass”(304).
You play, you pay, is a dagger often sharpest when thrown at women.
And Taddeo smoothed my very ruffled feathers with her assessment of Maggie’s seduction by a high school teacher and subsequent trial:
“Indeed it is the same world that wants to keep lauding only those who have already been lauded, those who have, throughout history, been accepted. Watching the way so many people reacted to Maggie’s story was unsettling for me. Even those who believed Maggie’s version of events opined that she had been complicit…But what Aaron Knodel was accused of is, arguably, nearly as damaging to a child as a nonconsensual event might have been. Society treats girls like the one Maggie was as adults who have the faculty of making good decisions. She was a bright child with some hardship. A brilliant teacher like Aaron Knodel could have been the catalyst that propelled her into a lifetime of confidence and greatness. Instead, he became the opposite”(303).
Desire is complicated. Its compass is not always right or wrong, good or bad. Desire can be unimaginably powerful, depending on the depth of its needs. And after someone has been wronged, neglected, hurt, as so many have, desire can be insatiable and sometimes the only solace and satisfaction in a person’s life.
In the end, Toni Bentley points out what is probably the most legitimate criticism of the book: “All [the women] are white and (mostly) heterosexual, and they range in age from 16 to early 40s: a highly limited, though serviceable group.” Ultimately though, who stepped forward and stayed in the game wasn’t really up to Taddeo.
It’s not a bad thing to be shaken up as I was by Three Women. I learned a lot from this upset and this is a good thing.
“The main goal of Three Women, for me, is to get people of all genders thinking about the ways in which we should not judge our neighbors. That we all want to be able to want freely. But that what we want should not cause someone else fear or discomfort,” says Taddeo in an interview with Time.
Although we often fail at not causing others pain, I cannot help but agree with her.
Lisa Taddeo is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2019
Bentley, Toni. “What Do the Sex Lives of “Three Women” Tell Us About Desire.” The New York Times, 9 July 19.
Carpenter, Lea. “’Desire is Always Evolving.’ What the ‘Three Women’ Author Learned After a Decade Following Women’s Sex Lives.” Time.com, 21 July 19.
Flock, Elizabeth. “Women and desire: It’s about so much more than sex.” The Washington Post, 26 July 19.
Taddeo, Lisa. Three Women. Avid Reader Press: New York, 2019.